- Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s “Phantomnation”:Cinematic Specters and Spectral Collectivity in Dictée and Apparatus
From Alchemist to Diseuse
Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s mail-art piece Audience Distant Relative (1977) materializes her nascent concern with the artwork’s ability to institute aleatory relations among the work, the artist, and the audience and to disarticulate their putative sense of ipseity.1 Predating Cha’s more well-known works such as Dictée and Exilée (both made in 1980), which embrace written inscriptions and postal addresses initiated by such inscriptions, the work performs a contingent reticulation of the artist, the artwork, and its recipient, which remain disjointed across an incalculable distance. Placed within the multiple envelopes, the work’s text addresses the audience as its “distant relative” and solicits each of them to become a corecipient of the letter’s enigmatic materiality:
I address youAs I would a distant relativeAs if a distant relativeSeen only heard only through someone else’s description.2
By showing a condensed overlap of meaning between a relative who is distant and a distance that is relativized by the letter’s missive movement, Cha’s “address” questions normative notions of both “relative” and “distance” and enacts a poiesis of relation between the two heretofore estranged entities whose sensuous faculties only partially and incompletely apprehend each other. Here, the work’s limited capacity to “see only” and “hear only” the unknown audience’s presence corresponds with the audience’s own similarly incomplete synesthesia, which, without fully comprehending the object, disperses its significance across senses. As the following passage indicates, despite the kind of intimacy usually associated with the [End Page 63] second-person pronoun “you,” the audience’s relation to the work is torn between her sighting of the inscriptions and her hearing of their potential sounds: “upon opening it / you hear the sender’s voice as your eyes move over the / words. You, the receiver, seeing the sender’s image / speak over the / voice.”3 Audience Distant Relative thus illuminates multiple senses that are involved in one’s encounter with the sensible material and foregrounds its own aesthetic transmission as a process that transforms both the transmitted matter and the audience’s sentient body.
In her MFA thesis “Paths,” Cha further defines the artist’s task as one of producing “an alchemical path” upon which the material in the world and the audience that receives it can be altered:
Alchemical elements used by Alchemists could be most commonplace: water, air, fire, earth, etc. They simply exist, as space, as time exists, almost unnoticeably. . . . He enters a covenant with these elements, with the intention not of imposing upon these materials, not so much to transform and shape them according to his will, but during the unfolding of this pact, these elements will be the ones to transform his soul. . . . The artist’s path is close to that of the alchemist in that his/her path is that of a medium. His/her vision belongs to an altering, of material, and of perception.4
At once linking and changing each term engaged in this “path” of artistic creation and reception—that is, the “elements,” the artist, and its audience—an artwork as conceived by Cha operates as an amorphous receptacle in which “phantom things and people . . . appear and move about.”5 Correspondingly, Cha’s prose also tacitly transforms the masculinist, active subject of art making (“he”) into the alchemist who primarily appears as the passive sufferer of the process and whose gender identification is increasingly equivocated: “his/her path.”
Remaining attentive to such alchemical process that informs Cha’s literary, cinematic, and other visual and performance works, this essay examines her phantomatic materialism that transforms both the writing of history and its historiographer in her later works such as Dictée, Exilée, and Apparatus (1980). By doing so, my reading of Cha’s works first intervenes critically into some Asian Americanists’ essentialist hypostatization of a single ethnic subject that speaks behind the artist’s works and then suggests that, far from engaging in such forms of monoritarian interpellation, her texts and films at once welcome numerous ghosts of history...